Punching power is spellbinding. You need only to consider the adjectives that accompany it for proof. Words like “frightening” or “chilling” indicate a visceral response to blows that turn a man’s lights out and freeze a crowd. Power produces outcomes people least want to suffer and therefore most want to see. Heavy-handed fighters fascinate because they deal in the same currency as their colleagues while producing more change. Plenty of fighters score knockouts, but power that breaks wills, that leaves men slumped, snoring, or stiff is qualitatively different. There is an element of mystery to this kind of power that is proportionate to its results. The more destructive the result, the less satisfying the explanation. “He is a born puncher,” they say. And there the explanation stops.
Light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev is a born puncher. He proved it at Motorpoint Arena, in Cardiff, Wales, on Saturday night, destroying Nathan Cleverly in four rounds.
Cleverly, Cefn Fforest, Wales, planned to extend Kovalev into the later rounds, where stamina, not power, would determine the verdict. Kovalev, however, had other plans. Governed by the puncher’s mindset, Kovalev introduced himself via straight and looping right hands, and a few thudding left hooks to the body. Throwing nearly one hundred punches in the first round, Kovalev set a pace that played into Cleverly’s hands. The problem Cleverly faced was that any one of these punches might ice him, and tiring Kovalev meant extending his exposure to one of those blows. The law of averages was simply not in Cleverly’s favor. By the end of the round, Cleverly was already fighting to keep Kovalev off him; it was a desperate strategy portending an ugly end.
The second round produced two telling moments. The first came when the fighters clashed heads, leaving Kovalev, Chelyabinsk, Russia, with a cut over his right eye. Disregarding the injury, Kovalev gave the slice a cursory wipe, before launching back on the offensive. The second came when Cleverly landed his best punch of the night, a cracking right hand to Kovalev’s chin. No, Cleverly is not a big puncher, but it was the type of blow that usually slows an attack. Kovalev barely blinked before slamming his fists into a retreating Cleverly’s forearms. While arguably getting the worse of these two exchanges, Kovalev showed qualities that can remain hidden while butchering opponents. He fights through cuts, and he demands getback.
Perhaps trying to explain why Cleverly was still awake, HBO commentator Roy Jones Jr., suggested that, save for his right hand, Kovalev’s punches had lost their steam in the third round. As if on cue, Kovalev clapped Cleverly with a left hook, and dropped him with a pair of follow up right hands. Angry with himself, Cleverly, 174, bounced up, appearing more surprised than hurt. But the hurt was coming. Kovalev tore into his opponent, hatcheting Cleverly while referee Terry O’Connor waved his hands like a landing signal officer. Strangely, O’Connor did not stop the fight. Instead, he stepped between the two as the bell sounded, and ushered a reeling Cleverly to his corner.
The masonry continued in the fourth, with Kovalev, 173, laying brick upon brick on Cleverly before the teetering fighter pitched forward onto his gloves and O’Connor intervened. Another victim of the mystery, Cleverly was rescued at 0:21 of the fourth round.
With the win, Kovalev, 22-0-1 (20), positions himself for a shot against fellow concussion specialist Adonis Stevenson, should Stevenson defeat Tavoris Cloud next month. Stevenson-Kovalev would determine the best 175lb fighter in the world, be a smashing success in Montreal, and produce explosions of Manhattan Project proportions. They could hand out HazMat suits at the gate.
What Cleverly, 26-1 (12), showed in defeat is that he is a tier below the best fighters of the division. He has plenty of fight left, and there is no shame in getting knocked out by Kovalev, but matchmaking and expectations should be tempered a bit. He reached his ceiling as a fighter against Tony Bellew. Kovalev threw him off the roof.